May 22, 2013

Story impact: Lawmakers hold up funding for GPS tracking, call for study

A Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism report on problems regarding the use of GPS devices to monitor convicted offenders was a factor in the decision of state lawmakers to delay approval of some funding sought by the state Department of Corrections for program expansion, and seek a study on the program’s effectiveness.

“People are concerned with the accuracy of the GPS monitoring devices,” said state Rep. Jon Richards, D-Milwaukee, citing the Center’s report.

State Rep. Jon Richards: “We’re potentially wasting thousands of dollars.”

The Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, of which Richards is a member, on May 13 voted unanimously to delay approving nearly $700,000 in supplemental funding for GPS tracking. Committee co-chair Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, told the Associated Press that the money was being withheld to make the DOC provide a detailed plan as to how it will be spent.

The GOP-controlled committee also requested a Legislative Council study committee on the use of GPS tracking, most likely in the next legislative session.

Richards said the purpose of the study is to discover the extent to which “the system is registering false positives, punishing people when they’re not breaking the law.”

He said committee members question whether the GPS tracking program as currently operated makes efficient use of taxpayer dollars or sufficiently protects the public.

“It’s a public safety issue,” Richards said. “Every minute we have police or parole agents chasing their tails, arresting people for false positives, we might be missing the people who are committing new crimes. And we’re potentially wasting thousands of dollars.”

The Center interviewed more than a dozen offenders on GPS monitoring who said problems with the technology, ranging from lost signals to false alerts, resulted in jail stays and other disruptions that made it harder for them to hold jobs and reintegrate into society.

Currently, the technology is used primarily to monitor about 600 offenders, most convicted of sex crimes. Walker’s budget calls for expanding the use of tracking for individuals who violate a temporary restraining order or injunction.

The Joint Finance Committee approved $5.5 million over the next two years to pay for GPS expansion. But it withheld a supplemental appropriation of about $667,000 pending further information from the DOC.

DOC spokeswoman Jackie Guthrie said this supplemental funding is for GPS monitoring of sex offenders and violators of domestic violence restraining orders. “The Department will monitor these populations based on actions by the courts and submit a request to Joint Finance when needed,” she said.

At a meeting of the Assembly Committee on Corrections in early April, DOC officials were grilled about the problems with the monitoring devices highlighted in the Center’s report.

“I guess my concern is that our equipment is accurate so that we know it’s working and we’re protecting the public,” committee chairman Garey Bies, R-Sister Bay, said at that meeting.

Another committee member, Rep. Michael Schraa, R-Oshkosh, raised a concern about occasions in which the GPS tracking devices send an alert even though the offender is in compliance.

“I’m just not sure, fiscally, that it’s responsible for us to be putting that kind of money into a program that is, at best, not accurate,” Schraa said.

And while Schraa acknowledged there is not much sympathy for sex offenders, he said: “I have the opinion that if they serve their time, they’re afforded the same dignity as anyone else.”